After 2 months without rain in southern Utah, emergency declared as farmers expect poor harvests next year

Despite full reservoirs, San Juan County officials are worried about dryland farmers and others, and declare an emergency. <br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Even though San Juan County reservoirs are nearly full, including Recapture Reservoir seen here, county leaders have declared an emergency because of the dearth of rainfall this fall. Almost no rainfall has fallen on southeast Utah in two months, a periods with ranchers and farmers depend on normally damp weather to green up forage and sprout wheat seed leading into winter.

At this time of year, Blaine Nebeker normally would be watching wheat seed sprout at his dryland farm in San Juan County, getting a jump on next spring’s growing season thanks to monsoonal storms that leave the ground damp and the forage green.

But the weather has been far from typical for Utah, where almost no rain has fallen in the past two months. Producers like Nebeker are in trouble, even though reservoirs are much fuller now than they were last year.

“It’s critical that we get our wheat up in fall. It grows into a grass-looking plant before it goes dormant in the winter,” Nebeker, a Monticello City Council member, said in a recent post on San Juan County’s Facebook page. “This year there hasn’t been enough rain on our dryland fields. ... It will really impact our yields next year.”

The video post with County Commission Chairman Bruce Adams, a Monticello rancher, explained the need for an emergency declaration, which the commission passed on Oct. 24. It asks state officials to help obtain financial assistance for local producers, speed up the processing of well-drilling applications and take “appropriate and fair reductions” of big game on croplands.

Adams also said the drought is exacerbating the potential for “catastrophic” wildfire, even though fire season is long over.

“We are sorry we have to make this declaration, but it’s in the best interests of the people, their health, safety and welfare,” he said. “We feel we need to let the state and nation know what the conditions are here in San Juan County.”

While other southern Utah counties are feeling the drought’s effects, their producers generally are not yet facing weather-induced hard times, according to John Keeler, southern region manager with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.

“Normal is dry, so anything less is drier,” Keeler said.

Still, 2017 will go down as a relatively wet year for most of Utah after at least five dry ones.

“We’ve just gone into abnormally dry this past summer, but we had no drought at the beginning of summer, and San Juan has moderate drought, which isn’t any big deal,” said Brian McInerney, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. Reservoirs are about two-thirds full in San Juan County.

“They’re doing OK. Bigger reservoirs down there are really quite full,” McInerney said.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, San Juan is experiencing “moderate drought,” classified as D1 on the drought severity scale, where as D2 is the severity level usually required to trigger federal assistance.

For San Juan, however, it’s not the severity, but the timing of the dry spell that is taking a toll on ranchers and farmers, especially those who plant winter wheat crops or those who have to get by without irrigation. According to Adams, who did not respond to a request for further comment, soil monitoring indicates the “wilt point” is 10 inches deep in parts of the county.

“You have to dig down 10 inches of dry soil before you find any moisture. That is below the point where the root systems can access that moisture,” he said at the Oct. 24 meeting. “Many of the farmers have not planted their wheat because there is no moisture.”

Southeastern Utah has seen very little rain in the three weeks since the county issued the declaration and no rain is in the immediate forecast.

But even if the rains return tomorrow, it is probably too late to help the farmers who grow winter wheat on 30,000 acres in San Juan County, according to Doug Christensen, a Monticello-based director of the federal Farm Services Agency.

“Topsoil moisture is nonexistent. The forage out there is bone dry. There’s not a lot of feed value in it. We didn’t get that fall green up,” Christensen said. “A lot of [wheat growers] dusted [seed] in hoping they would get October rains to get it to sprout and that didn’t happen. If it germinates in the the spring, the yield will be off 40 percent.”

The situation is equally challenging for cattle ranchers.

“A lot of the grass for fall feed is dried up and brittle and hard for the cows to eat,” Adams said. “The declaration informs the public of the concerns the commission has about the economy that is tied to agriculture.”

It also raises concerns about the impacts to the tourism industry and the culinary water supply, and implores residents and visitors to take extra precautions to prevent wild fire. Until conditions improve, no burn permits should be issued and fireworks should be banned, it said.

Reporter Emma Penrod contributed to this story.